Iron Crosses: Sentinels of the Prairie
Winistorfer, Jo Ann. "Iron Crosses: Sentinels of the Prairie." North Dakota Living, April 2003, 18-20.
was the winter of 1891-92. Diptheria had invaded the rural sod home
of Mercer County pioneers, Gottlieb and Dorothea (Habelmann) Krukenberg.
Note the spelling variation on Kruckenberg-Krukenberg surname.
Their youngest child--7-year-old Friedrich--had been severely stricken
by this deadly disease. Symptoms included high fever, swollen glands,
and a thick, choking coating in the throat that made breathing and
swallowing difficult. Already this winter, diphtheria had taken
the lives of others in the area. The nearest doctor lived in Bismarck,
too far away to help.
Trying to save her "little Friedele," as she called him,
Dorothea likely tried various folk remedies she had learned from
her female German-Russian ancestors back in Bessarabia, Russia,
their former homeland: throat swabs; powdered alum administered
to the back of the throat; a hunk of salt pork wrapped up in a woolen
sock and tied around the neck. And, most certainly, prayers. Lutheran
prayers, recited in German.
Yet despite these efforts, death stepped in to claim little Friedrich
on January 15, 1892.
Looking back through the veil of time and tears, one can imagine
the grieving father hand-hewing a small coffin to hold his boy.
Diggers wielding pickaxes and shovels, building fires over a pit,
coaxing a grave from the frozen earth.
Horse-drawn sleighs carrying mourners to St. Peter's Cemetery.
Relatives and neighbors bidding their last goodbyes. And wafting
over the scene, the sad German funeral hymn: "Wo findet die
Seele die Heimat, die Ruh?" (Where Does the Soul Find its Home,
A century and a decade of years after Friedrich's death, an iron
cross in a peaceful country graveyard north of Hazen still marks
his resting place.
|Gottlieb and Dorothea Krukenberg, pioneer
homesteaders north of Hazen, lost their youngest child, Friedrich,
to diphtheria in 1892. An iron cross marks his burial site in
St. Peter's Cemetery.
Symbols of Strength, Spirituality
Friedrich's wrought-iron cross is typical of thousands found in
cemeteries around the American heartland--from central Canada to
Kansas, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. The cross represented
the sacred; the iron represented strength--attributes of the pioneers
The iron crosses were particularly suited as prairie monuments:
Unlike wooden crosses, those made of wrought iron or other metals
were tough enough to withstand prairie fires, storms--even time
Often, these wrought-iron crosses were crafted by local blacksmiths,
in shops called "smithies." Using hammer, anvil and forge,
these early artisans crafted crosses of iron, steel and other metals,
often from pieces of scrap material. They worked in unlit buildings,
watching with practiced eye the changing colors of the heated metal,
pounding it as it melted, bending it until it formed the shape of
Many pioneer North Dakota crossmakers learned their craft in the
Old Country, serving for years as apprentices to experienced smiths
before becoming smiths themselves.
These crossmakers were of various nationalities: Irish, German,
Hungarian, Czech, Ukrainian, French/Metis and others. But most prevalent
in the Dakotas are the iron crosses of the Germans from Russia.
These "Eizenkreuzen" were crafted for generations by blacksmiths
on the steppes of the Volga and the Black Sea region of Russia.
These skills came with the smiths as they immigrated to America.
Dr. Timothy J. Kloberdanz, associate professor of sociology-anthropology
at North Dakota State University, is considered an international
expert on iron crosses. Writer and narrator for the recently released
documentary called Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses
of the Great Plains, Kloberdanz points out that these crosses
often contain a human touch. "The iron crosses talk to us,
they tell stories," he says. "These crosses have a lot
of heart and soul in them."
Designs and styles varied according to the creator. Some were simple
and symmetrical; others more ornate. Popular designs included leaves,
flowers, sunbursts, stars and angels. Some were personalized with
the deceased's initials or name, a favorite flower or other appropriate
symbol--in the case of a farmer, for example, stalks of wheat.
Kloberdanz stresses that the size, shape, style, color, design
and symbols all have cultural significance.
"You have to know how `to read' each cross and understand
what everything means," he says. "One iron cross, for
example, features an iron snake crawling up the cross. At the very
top of this same cross is an angel. This cross tells the story of
creation, the fall of man, and heavenly salvation. And it is all
done in the silent language of iron, without a single written word."
While some older German-Russian Protestant cemeteries--particularly
those in the Mercer County area--contain iron crosses, it was most
often the Catholics who honored their dead with these monuments.
Crosses in Catholic cemeteries sometimes incorporated crucifixes
into the design.
|This Richardton-area iron gravemarker,
complete with crucifix, is typical of those from Catholic cemeteries.
One Catholic cemetery near Hague, N.D., features around 70 iron
crosses. Creator of most of these crosses was Deport (Tibertius)
Schneider (1877-1941), Hague. An accomplished blacksmith, Schneider
used his imagination to invent his own patterns and designs. No
two markers are identical.
From 1870 to around 1930, iron crosses flourished. In addition
to handmade prairie crosses, firms in Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis
and Bismarck mass-produced elaborate, machine-made versions.
After World War II, as the demand for the services of the smith--from
sharpening plowshares to shaping metal--declined, so did the iron
crosses. Tombstones of granite, marble or concrete, or machine-made
metal markers, gradually relegated the iron crosses to relics of
Treasured Folk Art
In recent years, appreciation for these sentinels of the prairie
has grown along with recognition that they are a vanishing folk
art, and as such, must be preserved.
At a Kruckenberg reunion held in Hazen some years ago, some family
members recalled Dorothea's oft-stated wish that the aging iron
cross marking the grave of her "little Friedele" be replaced
with a nicer marker.
"The cross was all broken and wired together," says Verna
Maas Hoffer of Hazen, great-granddaughter of Dorothea and Gottlieb.
"It was falling apart."
The reunion committee members then visited the cemetery, intending
to carry out Dorothea's wishes. Verna herself had been planning
to purchase the new headstone.
But when the Kruckenberg family beheld the iron cross over Friedrich's
resting place, they recognized it as an item of historical relevance.
"Instead of replacing it, they cleaned it up and gave it a
fresh coat of paint," Verna says.
Thus Friedrich's cross, more than a century old, lives on as a
symbol not only of his brief life on earth, but of the era of iron
|Malvin Miller points out an iron cross
crafted by his blacksmith father, Samuel Miller Sr.
Crossmaker's Son Proud of His Heritage
Malvin Miller of Golden Valley is proud to be the son of a pioneer
iron crossmaker, doubly so because he himself is an avid historian
and genealogist, deeply involved in the heritage of his ancestors,
the Germans from Russia.
His father, Samuel Miller, a lifelong blacksmith and a German from
Russia emigrant, crafted unique grave markers for people in the
Hazen-Beulah-Zap-Golden Valley area.
Unlike more traditional iron grave markers, Samuel's ironwork features
a fenced metal enclosure framing the gravesite, with an ornamental
cross at the head and the name of the deceased crafted in large
metal letters at the foot. His designs, bold but simple, incorporated
circles, triangles and bars as well as scrollwork. Samuel's ironwork
serves as a legacy to the departed whose graves they frame, as well
as to the creator himself.
Samuel was born in Kronenthal, Crimea, South Russia, on April 27,
1884. He married Maria Boeckel in 1909 at Kronenthal.
|Samuel Miller, 1902, at age 18. Photo
taken in Crimea.
Samuel learned his craft in the Old Country and brought his skill
with him when he imigrated to Mercer County. "He came to America
in June of 1910 aboard the Lusitania," notes his son. The ill-fated
vessel was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans in 1915.
Samuel was one of 300,000 Germans from Russia who migrated to America
between 1872 and 1914.
When he first came to North Dakota, Samuel homesteaded 14 miles
north of Golden Valley, then worked at Kasmer, N.D. Samuel and Maria
had four children: Sam Jr. (who would later become his dad's blacksmith
assistant), Ella Onstott, Eugena Stockberger, and Emil. Maria died
Ten years later, Sam Sr., married Louisa Harsch. Samuel and Louisa
had four sons: Ervin, Elmer, Gilbert and Malvin. Louisa died in
1991 at age 89.
Sam Sr., was a blacksmith in the Zap area from 1925 till 1947,
when he purchased a smithy in Golden Valley. When his shop burned
down in 1949, Sam retired. In all, Samuel Miller Sr. was in the
blacksmithing business for 52 of his 80 years.
Sam Sr., assisted by Sam Jr., made numerous iron crosses throughout
the area--mostly for family and friends. These crosses are among
those featured in the video Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices:
Iron Crosses of the Great Plains.
Samuel Miller Sr. died September 3, 1964, in a Bismarck hospital.
He is buried in a cemetery north of Golden Valley.
While Samuel's grave features a stone marker, Malvin hopes someday
to erect an iron cross that reflects his father's artistry as a
|A crew prepares to film iron crosses
in a prairie cemetery near Rugby for their Prairie Crosses/Prairie
Voices video. Pictured (left to right) are videographer Dave
Geck, Prairie Public Television; Bob Dambach, Prairie Public
Television; and Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer,
Prairie Crosses Video Available
Now you can own your very own copy of an award-winning documentary
on the iron crosses of the prairies.
Titled Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the
Great Plains, the 60-minute video with bonus footage tells
the stories of pioneer Germans from Russia emigrants whose graves
are marked by these crosses, and of the blacksmith artisans who
Prairie Crosses is the third in a series of documentaries
co-produced by Prairie Public Television and North Dakota State
University Libraries. Major funding was provided by the North Dakota
Humanities Council, NDSU Libraries and by members of Prairie Public
Broadcasting. The project was supported in part by a grant from
the North Dakota Council on the Arts.
To order Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices, send $25 for
each videotape ordered plus postage and handling ($4 each for shipping
in the U.S.; $5 for shipping to Canada; $8 for shipping via air
mail outside the U.S.). All videotape orders must be in U.S. dollars,
with check or money order payable to NDSU Library.
Mail to: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Prairie Crosses
Videotape, NDSU Libraries, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599.
You can also purchase Prairie Crosses by calling Prairie
Public TV at (800) 359-6900.
Reprinted with permission of the North Dakota Living.
Additional information about the iron crosses can be located at
the following website pages:
1. Iron Spirits, 1982 book: library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/nd_sd/vrooman.html
2. Photo Notecard Series: library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/notecards/notemain.html
3. Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains,
2002 videotape documentary: library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/tapes/pcpvtape.html
4. Survey of Iron Cross Cemeteries in North Dakota: www.plainsfolk.com/ironcross
5. Videotape Documentaries & Other Projects about Iron Crosses: